I know lots of folks, including close friends and loved ones, who’ve temporarily or permanently given up alcohol use for various reasons: health concerns, financial strain, dependency issues. And I’ve seen firsthand the destructive power of heavy drinking, which so often signals or evolves into full-blown alcohol addiction.
Drinking alcohol might lack the cultural stigma of other controlled substances, such as cocaine and opioids. But it’s still a mind-altering drug with a high potential for abuse and a slew of short- and long-term health impacts. Plus, every drink — from homemade wine or cider to professionally mixed drinks at a high-end cocktail bar — carries a price tag.
Even if you’re comfortable with the volume, regularity, and context of your alcohol use, it’s never a bad idea to step back and reflect. Depending on what you learn from this exercise, you may well choose to take steps to cut back on your alcohol consumption or stop drinking altogether.
Ways to Reduce Alcohol Consumption or Quit Drinking Altogether
You don’t have to stop drinking alcohol entirely or enroll in a substance use rehab program to enjoy the benefits of moderation. Merely reducing your consumption — by drinking less often and drinking less when you do imbibe — has clear financial and health benefits. However, after reflecting on your current drinking habits and behaviors, you may conclude that your best course of action is to stop using alcohol entirely, at least temporarily.
If you’re worried about your drinking or suspect alcohol dependence, the first thing you should do is take an alcohol use self-assessment test. This National Institutes of Health screener is a good template, as is the World Health Organization’s Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test.
Quitting cold turkey is always an option, but decreasing or eliminating alcohol use is more successful when it’s done strategically and with adequate support. Temporary abstention is a great opportunity to address problematic habits, behaviors, and thinking patterns and develop healthier, more productive routines that don’t revolve around alcohol use.
These three strategies are popular and effective.
1. Participate in Dry January
Dry January is a 31-day holiday from alcohol. Launched in 2013 by a British nonprofit, Dry January is popular on both sides of the Atlantic these days, boasting a popular Twitter handle (@DryJanuary) and hashtag (#DryJanuary). According to a YouGov poll cited by the U.K. Independent, more than 3 million Brits hopped on the Dry January bandwagon in 2018, though many inevitably fell off at some point during the month.
Dry January is an opportunity for social drinkers, regular alcohol users, and heavy drinkers alike to break out of their typical routines, detox, and enjoy alcohol-free clarity. If you’re interested, poll your friends and loved ones in November or December to see who’s willing to take the plunge with you. Tackling a Dry January is much easier when you’re not the only reveler abstaining — though being your social circle’s go-to designated driver is a great way to gain favor.
2. Set Open-Ended Abstention Goals
Why wait for January or limit yourself to a single month? Nothing’s stopping you from pursuing an open-ended, self-directed period of alcohol-free days.
As with Dry January, it’s best to practice open-ended abstention in solidarity with friends and family — or, at least, their tacit support. If you’re married or in a committed relationship, ask your partner to join you. If they balk, try a compromise. Perhaps they agree not to drink at home or in your presence outside the home.
If you’re not sure you have the willpower or discipline to pursue truly open-ended abstention, resolve to remain alcohol-free until a future date of your choosing, such as two weeks, four weeks, or eight weeks from now. When you reach your target date, repeat the resolution. Eventually, the challenge may well wear off. Many a temporary abstainer has quit drinking altogether this way.
3. Keep a Drink Diary
Commit to keeping a drink diary that chronicles every drink you take, every day. Men’s Fitness has a comprehensive list of drink-counting apps designed to track your drinking habits and shame you into making smarter decisions. Paid apps have more bells and whistles, but if you just need a drink logger, a free option will suffice.
If you’re concerned about entering personal information in an app, it’s easy enough to do the same on paper. DrinkIQ from the U.K. National Health Service is a great drink-diary template
4. Join a Support Group
You can join a drinkers’ support group and manage your alcohol cravings without completely swearing off drinking. Moderation Management shares superficial similarities with Alcoholics Anonymous, but its goal is less ambitious: “responsible drinking” and avoiding binge drinking in particular, rather than lifelong sobriety.
Alternatively, try self-directed moderation apps, like CheckUp & Choices.
5. Maintain an Alcohol-Free Home
You don’t have to be quick to offer guests alcoholic drinks to be known as a great host. Getting rid of your home minibar or beer fridge is a great way to reduce the temptation to drink in casual domestic gatherings or by yourself after a long day at work.
When you have to leave the house to grab a beer or cocktail, you’re less likely to indulge spontaneously, more likely to cut yourself off after that first or second drink, and more likely to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink.
6. Build Your Drink-Refusal Skills
Communicate clearly to friends and family that you plan to cut back on alcohol use, then work on drink-refusal skills to resist pressure from those who can’t or won’t get the message. The National Institutes of Health’s Rethinking Drinking portal has a detailed list of drink-refusal strategies, ranging from saying “no, thank you” like a broken record to planning a physical escape if the temptation to drink becomes overwhelming.
7. Learn to Love Nonalcoholic Replacements
Find a nonalcoholic beverage you enjoy. Pass on full-sugar sodas and high-fat drinks in favor of low- or no-calorie alternatives like seltzer water and kombucha. In social settings, drink these replacement beverages in succession or have one for every alcoholic beverage you consume.
8. Set Going-Out Limits
I’ve done this successfully for reasons that have nothing to do with limiting my alcohol consumption. I live in Minneapolis, where bitter winter weather makes nights out on the town a whole lot less fun.
During the cold season, which lasts nearly half the year, I started setting a limit on the number of nights per week or month I’ll leave the house to hang out with friends. As I’ve aged, it’s become a year-round practice.
For me, the right number is one or two nights per week. If you’re a social butterfly with ample discretionary spending money, that might not be enough for you. If you’re a frugal introvert, once or twice a month might be plenty. Less nights out means less temptation to drink socially, especially if you combine this strategy with maintaining an alcohol-free home.
9. Stick to a “Social Bedtime”
Wedding after-parties aside, I can’t remember the last time I closed down a bar. That’s mostly because I’m fastidious about my “social bedtime” — the point at which I bid farewell and head home, even if my crew is still partying. I make exceptions for special occasions, such as birthdays, bachelor parties, and weddings, but otherwise stick to my limit.
With less time allotted, I drink less alcohol — and spend less money — than I would if I kept an open-ended social schedule.
10. Set a Strict Entertainment Budget
If you don’t want to limit the frequency of your nights out, cap your spending instead. Set a realistic weekly or monthly entertainment budget that fits with your broader discretionary spending budget.
For guidance, tally up how often you go out in a typical month or quarter, then look back at your credit or debit card statements to determine your average spending on each excursion. Add those figures together to arrive at your projected entertainment spending for the period. If you’re feeling ambitious, set your new entertainment budget lower.
Pro tip: When you do go out, use a cash-back credit card that favors spending on dining and entertainment, two popular spending categories likely to include alcoholic beverages. For example, Chase Freedom Flex has 5% quarterly rotating cash-back categories that occasionally include restaurants. It also does not charge annual fees. Learn more about the Chase Freedom Flex℠ Card.
11. Plan Dry Social Activities
You don’t need a glass in your hand to have a good time or a full social life. Make a list of free or cheap activities that aren’t conducive to alcohol consumption, such as an afternoon at the museum, a walk in a city park, a bike ride around town, a volunteering session, or a mocktail- or tea-fueled game night. Consider taking up a new hobby that occupies evenings you might otherwise be tempted to go out.
12. Use a Fitness or Calorie-Counting App
Alcohol is calorie-dense. Even if you’re not concerned about the addictive potential or long-term health effects of alcohol, the prospect of needlessly putting on pounds could prompt you to cut back.
This is my wife’s go-to strategy. A few weeks before her most recent Dry January, she revived her dormant MyFitnessPal account and dutifully logged the alcoholic drinks she consumed during the holiday season. (I wasn’t brave enough to do the same.) Duly chastened, she went the entire month of January without a single serving of alcohol — and met or beat her calorie goals every week.
13. Pursue Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an addiction treatment and management strategy designed for individuals with diagnosed and self-identified chemical dependency. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, CBT is based on the idea that learning processes play a critical role in the development of harmful behaviors like substance abuse. In CBT treatment programs, patients identify relapse “triggers” and develop coping strategies to head them off, increasing their long-term well-being.
It’s best to do CBT with professional supervision. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, qualified therapists can charge $100 per hour or more, rendering sustained CBT therapy prohibitive at full price for patients without adequate insurance coverage.
Some private therapists have progressive (sliding-scale) payment schedules that allow patients to pay only what they can afford. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) operates federally funded health centers with onsite mental health providers and low- or no-cost treatment for lower-income patients. Use the HRSA’s health center locator to find a facility near you. Also, check out these other ways to get affordable mental health treatment.
Public attitudes toward intoxicants continue to evolve, as demonstrated by the normalization of cannabis (and the associated investment opportunities). Yet more and more people are voluntarily choosing to reduce or entirely give up alcohol and other mind-altering substances.
While this might seem like a daunting task at first, it doesn’t have to be. The strategies we’ve explored are available to anyone who wishes to abstain from or moderate their alcohol use, most at little to no net cost. Indeed, successful abstainers often save money by eliminating an expensive share of their personal entertainment budgets.
If you need help on your journey, that’s OK too. There’s no shame in seeking professional assistance to address problematic behaviors around alcohol and other substance use — and doing so is well worth any cost you might incur.